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The BlackBerry KEY2 is in a market with no competitors — but is that enough to make it sell?

I've been using my BlackBerry KEY2 for about a week and a half now, and I haven't been doing so begrudgingly or out of any sort of obligation — I've continued to carry it by choice. I'm not here to talk about my personal takes on the KEY2 as a device — that'll come later in a specific review, and Daniel wrote up a brilliant full review of the phone already that I recommend you read. But I want to keep using the KEY2 so I can try to wrap my head around just how big the potential market is for this phone; for a smartphone with a hardware keyboard in 2018.

In a world of increasingly homogeneous smartphone designs and feature sets, we often talk about markets segmented by price, retail availability and size. Phones have some differentiations, but with lots of feature and spec overlap, price and availability become defining factors when people are making a buying decision. Seldom do phones differentate themselves with a single feature or design choice to the point where it has no other direct competition. Yes, there are certain features that weigh more heavily for some consumers than others, like a headphone jack or camera feature, but those aren't strong enough to keep a single phone completely separate and unable to be compared to others in the way the KEY2's keyboard does.

We know the KEY2 isn't perfect — its screen, cameras and speaker leave much to be desired. But at the same time, it almost doesn't matter, so long as these downsides are still in "good enough" territory, because the KEY2 appeals to a single market: people who want a hardware keyboard. The question people following the smartphone world have is, just how many people out there are willing to make a smartphone buying decision based purely on having that hardware keyboard?

There's little doubt that some people want a smartphone with a hardware keyboard. There's the nostalgia factor, of course, harkening back to a decade ago when people loved their BlackBerry. But there are also some people who stuck with the increasingly rare hardware keyboard devices up until a couple years ago. They legitimately prefer the tactile feel of keys to tapping on glass, even if they inherently know that it isn't quite as fast or versatile as a full touch screen device. There are people out there for whom a hardware keyboard is the best way to use a smartphone.

The KEY2 is truly unique, but is that a selling point or a sign that it's the only product in a nonexistent market?

TCL won't break out any sort of sales figures, but it's a safe assumption to say that the KEYone didn't sell in amazing volume. Even with various different color versions, RAM bumps and worldwide availability, it didn't sell well enough for the company to make any noise about the numbers. You could argue that was because of the phone's myriad issues and not the existence of a hardware keyboard ... but it seems to me it's simply due to the market for hardware keyboarded smartphones being downright tiny nowadays. And the KEY2 isn't going to change that, considering it's just a much-improved KEYone rather than an altogether new take on the form factor.

The KEY2's keyboard works quite well. In a typing test, I'm roughly as fast with it as I am typing at an on-screen keyboard. And that keypad offers a lot of extra features that BlackBerry should be touting more than it does. But it's still a relic of the past — an antiquated input method that most people gave up on 5 years ago, if not a decade.

Only TCL knows the KEY2 sales figure that's considered a "success," and I hope the company is pragmatic enough to not expect it to sell in the double-digit millions per year. It stands to reason that the KEY2 will have to sell much better than the KEYone did to justify continuing to develop this hardware keyboard product line, though, and I'm just not sure it can. Even when it's a phone available in a market with no competitors.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

35 Comments
  • I pre-ordered the Key2 as soon as it was up on Best Buy. I haven't had a BlackBerry since the Note 2. I never considered the KEYone due to price and performance issues, and this one is still too high, but I figured it won't be coming down in price based on how they didn't drop the KEYone price until recently. With the new specs I don't think there will be performance issues
  • "Good enough" in the other specs isn't going to cut it when a virtual keyboard is good enough while accompanied with great specs on other devices. Now if they had very good specs while also having a physical keyboard, then that would actually be interesting. Let's be real, if OnePlus can place the top shelf processor, 8gb of RAM, AND 256gb of memory in their devices and still come in at a lower price point, there is zero doubt in my mind Blackberry could have done better than "good enough".
  • Good argument. Hard to debate that.
  • Yes, and again shows that it isn't that "people don't want a physical keyboard," but other things that are the problem. A significant enough number of people *do* want a physical keyboard, but BlackBerry continues to be BlackBerry and can't get out of its own way.
  • "Good enough" is very subjective.
    It obviously isn't good enough for you.
    If it is good enough for some people then by definition they don't care that it's not better.
  • That's really no different than any phone. We all prioritize and weight different things. Because I take a lot of photos with my DSLR, my need for a great cell camera is much less than it was a few years ago. I want great battery life, others are willing to sacrifice that for other things. I've never found a phone that's even close to "perfect" (for me). There is always a trade off of some sort. The best have had the fewest or less weighted compromises, but there were still compromises. That's inherent in the point I've been making. I would love a physical keyboard, but the sheer weight of the compromises I'd have had to make on prior BBs (and because there will at least initially be no CDMA version, on the Key2 this time) was a back breaker. That despite my heavily weighting a phytsical keyboard itself.
  • I have been using android phones since the moto dext years ago . But also have stuck with a bb for one of my decides. Was hoping for a few more features on the Key2 (AMOLED) (and removal of those capacitive navigation keys) but i think this will be my next phone.
  • It's a shame the price is high. Seems that it will be a promising phone for those that will purchase it.
  • Andrew, I want to congratulate you on an article that's not hateful or unappreciative to the Key2. We've read and seen many videos comparing it to the S9 or iPhone X, and that is ridiculous. Yes, it is a smartphone for a niche market. But I think TCL is slowly but surely appealing to productivity, security and people that don't want to be wall huggers (recharging twice or more a day). Yes I'm a BlackBerry supporter, but not a Key2 fan. I am waiting for their next slab phone. Why? Because when you use all the features within the BlackBerry launcher, together with all the little bells and whistles they tweak around Android, you notice something different, functional and effective. Pictures can be improved using a better camera App. Been there, done that. But securing your phone's hardware and getting security patches constantly, that is not something that every other phone does well. After all, the Android for business list is a short one, and BlackBerry is in it!
  • Samsung and Google both have secured Android phones, both offer monthly updates and both have competitive prices. Odds are BBMo won't be able to do another SLAB phone, unless Enterprises starts buying... Motion was a limited release that was probably a loss for the company. Already signs that it is out of production. As this article points out...it about the keyboard, or nothing.
  • BlackBerry trumps Samsung on the scheduled monthly security patches. Not to mention their Android is hardened up with the way OS boots up with hardware encrypted keys
  • Imma wait till it drop to $300-400 on swappa or offerup
  • As it stands for now Key2 is half baked product not ready for prime time. Yes, you have PKB but that's about it. Go to Crackberry forums, read what those who already received the device say. It is piece of garbage in the current state... Key2 was marketed as tool to do the job fast. When I am spending £579 on the tools (I am Engineer by trade) I expect the bloody thing to work flawlessly. Key2 is not that tool...
  • People have just begun pre-ordering.
  • not really, in some places people already have this product. UK is one of them...
  • if i didn't have an s9 plus right now I'll would have got a key2
  • We can't tell how much potential physical keyboards have today, if the phone itself provides no incentive to switch. I loved my BB back then, but I wouldn't want to pay more for less in features. I'm sure there'd be more people who want to switch back to a physical keyboard, having learned the painful lesson of what it really means to type on glass over the past decade! But the product is just not there! However, I type in 3~4 languages regularly. This is something the keyboard will never be able to compete. But I'm in the minority.
  • I have nothing against physical keyboards. I love them when I have them. However, as the article mentions, you suffer in other areas to make up for the keyboard. And the price point isn't that high. I'd sooner buy the Key2 at a higher price point (the same price point as many of the flagship devices from competitors) if there was no sacrifice in the other areas. I will no longer settle for "Good Enough" on screen/camera/speakers, when for a couple hundred more they can be better than good enough, and I'll keep the phone for a much longer period of time.  
  • Nobody else makes keyboard phones because it's such a small niche market that no one bothers. Blackberry has no other option, if they make phones without physical keyboard it can't stand out since everything else on the phone is average.
  • The mistake I keep seeing in these type articles is the assumption that if the phone fails to sell, it's because of the keyboard. While I understand why that assumption would be made, I suspect it is an incorrect one. I'd love a physical keyboard. I know I'm far from alone in that. My issues have not been with BlackBerrys, but with BlackBerry. By the time I was able to get prior handsets on my carrier (Verizon), they were already old tech...old tech that wasn't cutting edge to begin with. The Key2 and its specs sound better now than others have at release, but again I can't get it on/for Verizon. Maybe if I was on a larger carrier... As Andrew mentions in passing about BB not promoting the keyboard shortcuts, BB has done a terrible job with everything but the phones themselves. Going back to the nonsensical Super Bowl ad of several years ago, the company behaves as though it doesn't really want to sell any phones. The actual market of folks who prefer physical keyboards is larger than these obligatory does-anyone-still-want-a-keyboard articles assume. The issue isn't the keyboard.
  • Agreed...the market is huge for those of us who really "need" a functional, easy to use keyboard...those of us who write "real" words and don't want a ton of mistakes to boot...
  • Over on another Android site, one of the main guys ran a poll he thought would prove what an insightful dude he is in assuming nobody wants a physical keyboard. Last I checked, early to midweek, 43% of well over 2,000 voters indicated a phone with a physical keyboard interested them. I saw a poll at another site (as I recall a more broad tech site than just Android) a year or two ago that had an even higher percentage than 43% interested in physical keyboards. That's a much bigger chunk than just a small niche. In the comments, most indicated they'd prefer/only want a Droid 4 slider type device. I'm in the minority there. I don't like sliders and prefer the form factor of the Key2. Regardless, the physical keyboard has a significant market.
  • That poll on the other Android site currently: 1028 of 2394 voters (43%) say "Yes" to "Does a Phone With a Physical Keyboard Interest You?"
  • I'm one of those who writes a ton of words... and then ESPECIALLY edits them. I translate movie scripts from Italian to English. Morning, noon and night. The writing situation on the handheld flatscreens was so miserable - even compared to the writing devices of the mid '90's (Psion 5MX, HP200LX, Journada, etc.) that I invented my own solution... and had it implemented. Sorry, in the iOS sphere - not that I didn't try in the Android camp! Well, working on my iPhone 6S, I can not only beat BB at editing, but transcend it. If you think this is an idle boast, throw the proverbial gauntlet. It took me a couple of years, but at long last CONNECTIVE EDITING exists and works like a charm. Now I have vowed to get an app maker (of writing programs) in the Android sphere on board... I am no fan of Apple, but one of their apps offers full connective editing while Android is asleep... and BB which brags (or used to anyway) of being an "office in your pocket" is comatose when it comes to actual editing power. A niche market for sure... today writing means quick messages, tweets, WhatsApp's and not novels, scripts, blogs... but this is also because the whole writing situation on the flatscreens is so lousy as to constitute a deterrent. Well that has ended. First in iOS... and if I have my way, soon in Android...
    ...meaning that writing-editing on phablets and small tablets (instant-on work anytime, anywhere devices) will be hugely more productive.
  • Blackberry is dead. No one but a nobody wants a physical keyboard anymore. Blackberry's own flick typing put them out of their mysery years ago. Sadly... little johhny was too much of an 1d10t to figure that out... while being so arrogant that he thought he could save the company while burying it in obscurity.
  • I don't necessarily believe that the KEY2 will need to sell in much larger volumes than the KEYone for TCL to consider it a success. Clearly, the KEYone sold well enough that TCL thought it was worth making the KEY2. The real comparison isn't whether the KEY2 sells as well as an iPhone or Galaxy phone -- it won't. The question is whether it brings in more money (sales x profit margin) than TCL's other phones. I think that's very likely. After all, what other TCL phones have ever attracted the level of interest as the KEYone and KEY2?
  • I disagree with the statement that these now-retro yet new-again-now keyboards are not as fast or easy to use as the new, flat, purely electronic keyboards. I, too, actually had a pull-out keyboard (my name for it) on my first Android phone, which I loved. And, actually, when that phone died, I found a used, refurbished phone, just so I could have that keyboard. I could type super fast on it. And unlike the "new" keyboards, it did not matter if I was sitting on a subway or moving around...as in, movement did not disable my ability to type. I thought Blackberry was a thing of the past, but stumbling on this article, I will definitely be getting one. I have a good, real camera, so no worries there. Who wants to take "official" or "real" pix with a phone anyway? Phone camera more for spontaneous pix, in my view, but never of super high quality, compared to a pro camera. Anyway, yay, I was just telling someone the other day how much I miss my "hard" keyboards on my phone. So sick and tired of mistyping, correcting, on and on...such a complete waste of time and a total irritation, A lot of times, I tell people I will email them from desktop or laptop, just because I cannot stand typing long responses on my phone!!!
  • Antiquated input method? Oh, you mean the one that's on...... EVERY single computer and laptop ever? As well as a best selling accessory for tablets. Yeah, I doubt the author used an on-screen keyboard to type that very sentence.
  • Have a keyone and pre-ordered the keytwo, the battery life and the functionality is why I buy them. The keyboard isn't only great for typing but for the shortcuts which you can't get anywhere else. Not for everyone but perfect for me.
  • Key 2 interests me and I'm considering it but I wish they would have made a plus version with a bigger screen though I could adapt to the 4.5 in screen... Blackberry needs to bring back the priv as their high end phone I would love a priv 2 with a slide out landscape keyboard, wireless charging, splash resistance, and Qualcomm's high end 800 series SoC.
  • My flirtation with BlackBerry lasted all of five months in June of '09 after I bought a pair of Storm 9530s. My girlfriend kept using hers while I bought the first Motorola Droid. Those Storms used to receive their updates in a weird fashion which, in retrospect, seems charming now. I buy a lot of 'stuff' for nostalgia's sake so I'm going to give some thought to this BB KEY2.
  • I know a couple of people at work still on BB10 company BlackBerry phones. Possible to get them I would think.
  • Old people be like Hell Yeah!
  • It looks to be a great phone, and should be secure as hell, as Blackberrys usually are. But Blackberry has had a poor record of providing OS updates, and that is a deal breaker for me.
  • My wife's Verizon Galaxy S7 Edge (a phone I also owned until I got my current Pixel 2 XL in Nov) just got Oreo a week or two ago. Not suggesting you should get a Galaxy either, just pointing out that people generally seem to hang this criticism on BB, when it isn't the broad differentiator they're suggesting it is. There seems to be an odd level of disdain for BB that is out of line with its crimes. If anyone should be disdainful, it should be someone like me who used them for 7 years and left begrudgingly when the Q10 took foreeeeever to get out to us here in the US. My complaints about the company are still largely the same; It can't get out of its own way.